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The Boston Phoenix Stephen Duncombe

"Notes from the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture."

By James Surowiecki

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND: ZINES AND THE POLITICS OF ALTERNATIVE CULTURE, by Stephen Duncombe. Verso, 240 pages, $19.

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  In a society that treats cultural rebellion more as a marketing tool than as a problem to be solved, how can cultural production serve as a real battleground for contesting the existing order of things? The short answer to that question is, it can't. The long answer, you might say, is Notes from Underground, Stephen Duncombe's new study of 'zines and their creators. Duncombe retains his respect and even admiration for the utopian sentiments that animate the 'zine world, even as he unblinkingly diagnoses the contradictions and limitations of the political vision these publications offer. The result is a moving yet frustrating work, haunted throughout by the unresolvable tension between Duncombe's sympathy with the 'zinesters' quest for authenticity and his recognition that that quest is doomed to both marginality and failure.

Although the sharp rise in the popularity of 'zines -- thousands of titles now come out each year, most with a circulation of less than 250 copies -- has inspired a number of books on the phenomenon, Duncombe's represents the first meaningful attempt to think about 'zines in political terms. Born in the 1930s, when science fiction fans began producing fanzines as a way of creating communities of readers, 'zines were also a central part of the counterculture in the 1960s, when they were more overtly political than ever before or after. 'Zines as we know them today are really a product of the punk explosion of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the spread of the do-it-yourself ethic spawned not merely thousands of bands playing fast three-chord music but also hundreds of unhappy writers throwing words onto sheets of stapled-together copy paper. Today, although music 'zines remain central to the medium, there are 'zines on virtually every imaginable topic, from temp work to riot grrrl culture to queer politics to The Brady Bunch. You can now buy 'zines at Tower Records, read about them in USA Today, and see their influence on slick magazines like Bikini and Raygun.

Since writers normally write in order to be read, and since successful politics generally means preaching to the unconverted, one might expect the producers of 'zines to see their growing influence on the mainstream as a triumph and an opportunity. Instead, as Duncombe shows, popularity has only brought the 'zine culture grief, for distance from the mainstream is the essence of the 'zine writer's identity. As Duncombe puts it: " 'Zinesters believe that authenticity can be found only in a person unshackled by the contrivances of society. An authentic individual, therefore, is one who cuts through the conventions of manners, norms, and communication and connects to his or her 'real' self." The embrace of society, then, is the last thing that 'zinesters want. It's not simply that 'zinesters are skeptical of their ability to alter a cultural discourse that is increasingly adept at assimilating all forms of opposition. It's also that they have invested everything in being against: "Raise the drawbridge, barricade yourself within, keep yelling no."

Yelling no, of course, is not always a pointless thing to do, and it is often a beautiful thing to witness. Much of modernism, after all, has as its deepest impulse the desire for negation, and the Western revolutionary tradition as a whole takes the simple "no" as its starting point. But whereas both modernists and revolutionaries wanted their work to effect change, to move out into the world, 'zinesters seem happier in their insularity. "Proclamations of our freakdom, our otherness" substitute for any attempt to change the world that makes 'zinesters feel like freaks.

What this means is that at times it's hard not to wonder whether Duncombe is lavishing his considerable interpretive skills on people whose main concern is making themselves feel better for having been losers in high school. The paucity of historical and political sophistication, the tendency to seek "psychic rather than material victories," and the almost visceral distaste for any form of collective action would all seem to make 'zinesters unlikely candidates for meaningful cultural rebellion. Often, they seem more like descendants of the car customizers Tom Wolfe praised in Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby than like Gramscian heroes.

But then, Duncombe isn't trying to argue that they are Gramscian heroes, and his book offers a stinging rebuttal to those who see subversive readings of game shows as real political acts. What Duncombe does see in the world of 'zines, though, is an alternative idea of the citizen's proper relationship to culture and, at best, a model for cultural production that is at once cooperative and individualistic. For Duncombe, 'zines are important because they are about making culture rather than simply consuming it, and because they suggest to people who would otherwise remain invisible that speaking out is possible. They are, in a sense, one idea of what real democracy might look like -- or at least they would be if 'zinesters were interested in talking to anyone but themselves. "In order to effect political change when you have no power, you need your neighbors," Duncombe points out. And the disillusionment at the heart of Notes from Underground reflects this simple fact: Duncombe wants to work with his neighbors, but the 'zinesters he loves so much just want to freak them out.


James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Slate, Lingua Franca, and the Motley Fool.


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